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Saudi-Iranian Toxic Sectarianism

By Lal khan

If there are any serious strategists and policy makers in Pakistan’s ruling elite and State they must be very worried watching the unravelling conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. With almost twenty-five percent of Pakistan’s population having a Shia background, the escalating diplomatic rows between these theocratic states can wreak havoc in a country already in the throes of sectarian bloodshed and mayhem. The diplomatic row between the Saudi monarchy and the ruling Iranian clergy has become more toxic in the past few months, the consequences of which in Pakistan are tearing apart the social fabric of the country and eroding the cohesion and structures of the state. The repercussions across the Middle East are no less virulent and harrowing.

The diplomatic rows between these obscenely rich and despotic Islamic theocracies were further inflamed over Iranians being blocked from this year’s pilgrimage. Iran’s top cleric and autocrat, Ali Khamenei, last Monday denounced Saudi Arabia’s management of Islam’s two holiest sites of Makkah and Madina. “Because of the Saudi rulers’ oppressive behaviour towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of Hajj.” He was also venting his wrath at last year’s Hajj stampede, in which 2,297 pilgrims were killed, with 464 Iranians among the dead.

On Tuesday top Saudi cleric Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh retorted by berating Iranians as ‘non-Muslims’, and referring to their pre-Islamic beliefs while differentiating them from the Wahabi and Sunni branches of Islam. “We must understand these are not Muslims, they are children of Magi and their hostility towards Muslims is an old one. Especially with the people of Sunna,” the Grand Mufti told Makkah daily, referring to pre-Islamic beliefs in Iran and to the Sunnis who make up the main branch of Islam. The sparring’s intensified with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif later berating the Saudi clerics, saying that there was no resemblance between them and the ‘bigoted extremism’ that they sponsored and preached. For the first time in almost three decades, therefore, Iranians could not participate in this year’s pilgrimage to Makkah after talks on logistics and security fell apart.

But this conflict isn’t really about religion, even when it’s flaunted along religious lines. The competition for the imposition of their hegemonic designs and dominance in the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being covered in the guise of Islamic sectarian hatred. Both regimes are theocracies, Iran claiming to represent the world’s Shia and Saudi Arabia, basically a rigid Wahabi regime, claiming to represent all Sunnis so this makes the religious division much more hostile, violent and fraught.

The historical period of the Arab-Persian rivalry spans almost one and a half millennia. During the rule of King Khosrow II, the last great king of the Sasanian Empire, (590–628), Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon were all annexed to a Persian Empire that had already conquered eastern Arabia previously. In 633, when the Sasanian king Yazdegerd III ruled Iran, the Arabs under Umar Ibn al Khattab invaded Persia where a bloody civil war had erupted and several regional rulers had mutinied against their rulers. Yazdegerd III fled but was killed at Merv in 651. By 674, Muslims had conquered Greater Khorasan including modern Iranian Khorasan province and areas of Afghanistan and Transoxiana.

The Arab conquest of Persia ended the Sasanian Empire and led to the ultimate waning of the Zoroastrian religion. Many characteristic Persian customs were not cast-off, but were absorbed by the new Islamic society. After the fall of the Sasanian Empire in 651, the Arabs of the Umayyad Caliphate adopted many Persian characteristics, administrative structures and court policies. The new Islamic empire minted imitations of Sasanian as well as Byzantine coins and the Pahlavi script was replaced with Arabic alphabet, at least in the west.

During the Umayyad Caliphate Arabic was imposed as the primary language of their empire. Al-Biruni wrote in his famous work,‘From The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries’: “When Qutaibah bin Muslim under the command of Al-Hajjaj bin Yousaf was sent to Khwarazmia with a military expedition and conquered it for the second time, he swiftly killed whoever wrote the Khwarazmian native language that knew of the Khwarazmian heritage, history, and culture. He then killed all their Zoroastrian priests and burned and wasted their books, until gradually the illiterate only remained, who knew nothing of writing, and hence their history was mostly forgotten.”

The Abbasids’ overthrew the Umayyads in 750. The Abbasid Revolution brought in a relatively more multi-ethnic state in the Middle East. The Empire’s capital was shifted from Damascus, in the Levant, to Iraq and the city of Baghdad was constructed on the Tigris River, in 762, to serve as the new capital. When the Abbasid Caliphate went into decline in the 9th and 10th centuries, non-Arab subjects created a movement called Shu’ubiyyah in response to the privileged rule of the Arab hierarchy. In this process Persia emerged as a distinctive element within Islam denoted as the Ajami Islam, large parts of which developed into Shite Islam. It was in the beginning of the 16th century, that Ismail I founded the Safavid dynasty and initiated a religious policy to recognize Shi’a Islam as the official religion of the Safavid Empire and that has continued till the advent of modern Iran. Since 1979 there has been a Shi’ite state with its roots linked to the policy of Ismail.

Most empires including the Arab-Asiatic dynasties of the region were oppressive and plundered their neighbours. But there were intermittent periods of relative social, cultural and scientific renaissances in the region. The Byzantine, various Islamic caliphates, the Ottomans, the Mongols, the Safavid, the Ghaznavi, the Pahlavi, the Nadir Shahi and other ruling elites were despotic and used religious and sectarian prejudices to perpetuate their rule. The same religious and sectarian conflicts have continued till today. In the post-WWI period the western Imperialist powers Balkanised and colonialized the region. This neo-colonial rule still continues to dominate the Middle East and western Asia.

However, for much of the Middle East’s history, a variety of Islamic sects, religions, ethnicities and nationalities have existed alongside each other, among the oppressed and the toiling classes and with little conflict. The relatively recent exacerbation of Sunni-Shia divide was not of much significance amongst the region’s peoples for generations. But after the 2003 United States aggression and invasion of Iraq, the conflagration in the region has unravelled into what seems to be an endless orgy of bloodshed and turmoil. The despot of Iraq, Saddam Hussain, was hostile to both Iran and Saudi Arabia (despite Saudi support for his 1980s war against Iran), and the Middle East was held in a precarious sort of balance.

In 2011, when the Arab Spring began overthrowing and destabilising regimes across the Middle East, both Saudi Arabia and Iran again tried to deviate and disrupt mass movements against their regimes by stirring up sectarian hatred and violence, deliberately stoking Sunni-Shia sectarianism to serve their interests. Saudi Arabia perceived the Shia Houthi insurgency in Yemen, as an Iranian-sponsored revolt. The belligerent Saudi defence minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, forced the obscurantist kingdom into militarily intervention in Yemen where its puppet regime was overthrown by the Houthi insurgency. The Iranian regime gave covert support for the Houthi insurgents, whose Shia identity they wanted to use in making them effective anti-Saudi proxies.

In the weaker regional states, Iran and Saudi Arabia have tried to position themselves as the patrons of their respective religious sects to assert their hegemony for their own strategic and economic interests. Sectarianism has become a political instrument as militias and political parties gang up along sectarian lines and commit horrendous crimes, plundering and tormenting the ordinary people of those tragic lands.

We are witnessing the same bloody scenario in Pakistan and particularly in Baluchistan where these sectarian terrorist proxies are carrying out the brutal slaughter of the Hazaras and other communities. This is only the religious-sectarian aspect of a wider bloody conflict where the state and the regional and world imperialist powers are responsible for the mayhem and suffering of the already impoverished and dispossessed people of Baluchistan.

Saudi- Iranian toxic sectarianismA similar scenario has been ravaging Syria since the withering and retreat of the indigenous mass movement of 2011. The Syrian people had arisen in a revolt as part of the generalised Arab uprising. The Saudis and other Sunni/Wahabi Gulf states armed and financed non-Shia rebel outfits, which were hostile to the Syrian ruling Alawite sect. These reactionary sectarian groups – which were the forerunners of the ISIS grouping in Syria – were also, therefore, hostile to Iran and loyal to Saudi and the Gulf Sheikhdoms’ interests. Iran has applied a similar strategy, portraying the Syrian internecine sectarian war as an onslaught against the minority Alawite, Christian and Shia populations. Tehran has been sponsoring, arming and training Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon that ultimately would to employed to fight for Iranian interests. It is also intervening in the Syrian sectarian civil war to ensure that the Syrian government remains subservient to Iran and serves Iranian regional strategic interests.

However, the Iranian and the Saudi regimes also use these sectarian conflicts for domestic consumption, to pacify and crush mass revolts in their own countries, where, increasingly, the ordinary people are plunging into socioeconomic crisis and suffering from more deprivation and exploitation. With the collapse of oil prices and the unprecedented economic and social crisis it faces, the Saudi monarchy is deeply insecure. Its hold on power is tenuous and its claim to legitimacy comes largely from Wahabi religious edicts. The regime of the Iranian aristocratic clergy is daunted by similar crises that are resurfacing and becoming more and more difficult to cope with. The 2009 upheaval in Iran was a trailer of what impends in this ‘Islamic Republic’ in the period ahead.

With a weakened US imperialism beating a retreat from the region, the nuclear deal with Iran was seen as an outrage for the Wahabi-Saudi and the Jewish-Israeli theocratic states as well as for other long-standing regional allies of the US such as Jordan and the Gulf states of Bahrain, UAE, Qatar and others. Their perception is that the Iranian regime is using this US avoidance and retreat to impose its hegemony in the region. However, the Saudis’ will resist it to the bitter end is also a reflection of their own regional economic-commercial, military and strategic interests.

In a meek effort to pacify the worries their old allies of the Al Saud dynasty, the Americans are trying to reassure them about the Iran nuclear deal by finalising a $1 billion arms agreement. An earlier, more complex, $10 billion arms deal was struck that would strengthen two key Arab allies, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In the same vein, to reassure its support for its Zionist imperialist outlet, the US will dish out $38 billion in military assistance to Israel over the next decade, the largest such aid package in US history.

Meanwhile, the Iranian clergy and the US are playing a cat and mouse game, having had so many covert deals in the past and balancing out each other in the present scenario while verbosely pretending to be each other’s enemies. But the hard reality is that the US imperialists, while trying to flee the region, cannot appease all these virulently adversary regimes whose fundamental interests and rulers clash on so many fronts. Nor can they strike deals for a patch-up between them. Such is the turbulence and deterioration of the situation that all this diplomatic activity and agreements have become a futile exercise where none of them can trust each other even for a relatively short time.

Unfortunately for the masses, the increased weaponization of the Middle East will only result in further escalations of the ferocious proxy wars, bloodshed and mayhem in the region. But this orgy of proxy wars can become fatally dangerous for the perpetrators of this reactionary conflagration and bloodshed. Islamic sectarianism is a tool used by these theocratic states to stave off crisis and continue the domestic politics on the internal front. It cannot be totally ruled out that this can boomerang on the masters of these sectarian bestial puppets. These reactionary states that sponsor terrorist proxies could themselves be dragged into a full-fledged war that can be an unprecedented catastrophe for the whole region. The oil price can shoot to levels unforeseen and the world capitalist economy could face an unparalleled disaster.

Even in the present scenario, with the continuation of the policies these regimes are now pursuing, there seems to be no end in sight of bloody wars and conflicts plaguing and devastating the inhabitants of this region rich in oil and other resources. These regimes, instead of ending sectarian bloodshed, actually exacerbate it for their own vested interests of power and financial oligarchy. The only force that can cut across these sectarian divisions and hatreds is a movement of the oppressed masses on a Class basis, united in struggle, to put an end to the misery this system has brought to their lives and the great civilisations they belong to.

The working classes comprise of all people of all religious, national, ethnic and sectarian backgrounds. The unity and the struggle on a class basis above all have to overcome and cleanse the prejudices of the past. We saw a glimpse of such a unity evolving in the beginnings of the 2011 Arab revolt. The masses shall rise again sooner rather than later and a victorious movement will not only lead to the overthrow the brutal reactionary regimes of the region but will also eradicate the venom of this virulent islamic sectarianism from the depths of society.